(A Retrospective Exhibition)

Notes on Vlado Martek’s new exhibition

In 2014, at the exhibition entitled “Art Case Martek” in the Art Gallery Kula in Split,multimedia and trans-disciplinary artist Vlado Martek showcased almost an entire range of techniques and procedures, expressions and actions, attitudes and provocations. By defining his original position using the formulation of pre-poet, as someone who is just preparing the possibility for authentic poetry, the author expanded his field of activity into many different directions, from conceptual incisive self-reflection, through documenting his own ideas and realizations, to varied modalities of artistic or para-artistic practice. And all this within a diffuse and elastic horizon of contemplating art and its materialevidence (even if under the semi-ironic name of “art”). 
On this occasion in Split, Martek is presenting an exhibition that is almost retrospective in character, with an inventive and intriguing title “At the end of Mannerism: Preparation for Art.” Greater number of exhibits and a more representative exhibition space will surely facilitate a more comprehensive insight into the artist’s workshop and results produced therein, and it undoubtedly places stronger emphasis on his controversial and comportmental orientation, seemingly anti-artistic and anarchist intentionality. From that perspective, Martek’s entry into museum and gallery spaces could seem as an acceptance of convention, concession to tradition, so it is not an accident that we find a work entitled “Every exhibition is suffering.”
However, for an artist like Martek, exhibiting in otherwise consecrated salon-like spaces could represent a kind of diversion or at least expansion of the field of action. Thus, the author who boldly questions, even invalidates all aesthetic function, is now coming to the Milesi Palace, a place where many painterly oeuvres were consecrated. We are, therefore, confronted with an artist who theorizes about art, but does not use a single codified and academically transferable knowledge and skill.
Some of the exhibits are eminently manifestative in character, moreover with proclamations or slogans, they look like political agitation texts written on a mostly neutral, monochromatic background. The first among them could be: “Remember art!”, seemingly neutral in intonation, but with its important ambiguity it is paradoxically supported by the tautological formulation: “Art or art?”. From an exclamation point wearrivedat the question mark, from a wistful invocation to aporia and doubt. A step further is taken in an imperative demand: “Whatever you do be brave as artists,”ostentatiously written on the yellowish silhouette of the European continent (so there is no doubt whom it refers to), and we will encounter a stimulating commentary in the sentence: “The state and artists are forever equal.” We find the temporary conclusion of the debate in artibus in the categorical statement: “Art to Martekis good for nothing,” certainly alluding to its lack of ethical dimension and operational function.
Transition from reflectionson art towards artistic practice is also gradual and proceeds with intellectual maxims, beginning with an analogy andevocation of art: “Remember painting” (this time without an exclamation point). Furthermore, it is as if a step towards concretization supplies light at the end of the tunnel, so the blackboard bears an inscription written in red letters: “Maybe painting gives some hope.”The sketchy depiction of clothes drying, framed in a thick black frame, is accompanied by a promising text: “Welcome to the painting.” The qualifier “Dangerous painter” is coupled with someof Martek’stypical symbols, so Kant is written on one of the sleds and Hegel on the other, while the determiner “Dangerous painter” has an added comment that says: “Right next to Spinoza,” and is supplemented with programmatic demands: “Beware the content / Beware the form,” that flow along the contours of painted colourful houses. The other blackboard, somewhat of a tabula rasa, is labelled with an inscription: “Instead of painting,” and in one of the rectangles there is a challenging and very specific inscription: “I threw my hands up on painting.”
In standard language, the syntagm “I threw my hands up” impliesresignation (to give up on something), however in Martek’s case it is transformed into an affirmative statement that still retains a measure of reserve. Therefore, our author here threw his hands up on painting and, reluctantly, painted paintings and depicted figures, presented forms and created iconic compositions with already established codified signs. Besides, all above mentioned inscriptions (plus those we did not quote) were applied mostly with paintbrush and paint and incorporated into frames of inescapable artistic qualities. Even without all this, the relationship between the blacks and reds, proportions of letters and parcels, physicality of the surface and applied pigment, would confirm that we are (also) faced with an optical or plastic fact.
Out of numerous erudite (or merely autobiographical-comparative) references in Martek’s oeuvre, I would prefer to trace his creative line between two names and two dates: “Martek loves Breton” (1983) and “Duchamp would have loved me” (2018). Some of the early drawings demonstrate his vivid imagination, and an undeniably oneiric source of the summoned characters and scenes. Heads and bodies on pieces of paper, entitled – more in the metaphoric sense, not so much the polemic – “Supra-Communist drawings” (from 1982), were obviously transforming and changing positions, while the insistence on stars justifies the title’s distance from (dogmatic) surrealism. The activism of his love for Breton will, in the course of decades, undergo a reversal (or merely a turn, deviation from straightforward trajectory) and move towards Duchamp, while the passive formulation is understood as a sign of great respect our author feels for the person who patented the ready-made and imbued artistic creativitywith the right to inventively make the ordinary extraordinary.In the early drawings Martek established his acerbic and raw anthropomorphic stylization; in the work “Symbols sad as childhood” (1984) he presented the typology he will abide by, as well as the methodology of persistently changing signifiers (head as helix, head as shield, etc.). The drawing “Auch” (1983) is an almost anecdotal illustration of human pain, while “Love” (1985) is a completely non-mimetic presentation of geometric forms.
Abstract terms became part of Martek’s microcosm in relation to the figures, and we are not going to say that they symbolize them or, god forbid, personify them, but they merely accompany them without any correlative ambitions. “Pain, shame, fear” (1993) are materialized in the form of three human silhouettes, each carrying one characteristic sign: the first has a circle, the second a cross, and the third (fear) is carrying in his hands the Egyptian cross (crux ansata). The interim space is filled with incoherent excerpts from some poetic text. “Goodness” is the title of two works (2002 and 2003), which depict alternating and varied red and black silhouettes supplemented with illogical, irrationally distant attributes, but also unavoidable birds that suggest lyrical flight. Specifically, birds will appear on several occasions, in “Red bird” (1989) that will prompt Martek to surrender, readily, to “delights of the acrylic,” in “Little school” (2003) with a pair of black crows (probably), symmetrically positioned on a double-armed cross (crux gemina), and “Birds on a scooter and sled” (2013), also accompanied by a frequent motif of a small house, ladder, and an additional mask covering the eyes. In the early 1990s, after “Red bird,” Martek’s works came closest to standard pictorial procedures, with a hypertrophy of blotches and paint dripping (“Two white hammers,” 1990), i.e. hieraticism and juxtaposition of opposite signs (embryo-skull) on a vivid surface articulated with decisive strokes (“The end,” 1992). The painting “Maybe” (2013) represents a real inventory of author’s specific signs, crowned with a title that is unusuallysupple, open, polyvalent, even on the other side of scepticism. It is, of course, impossible to present, and even more difficult to describe an entire iconography of Martek’swork as a painter, but we hope that even from this summary overview it can be deduced that he gladly and in equal measure used completely private associations, from his personal mythology, in a manner of speaking, as well as suggestions from the world of universal signs – such as, for instance, crosses – in order to guide us from the banal towards the sublime, from the fixed towards the undefinable and unspeakable.
A special segment of Martek’s opus is devoted to fictive geographic maps, i.e. summary, approximate contours of familiar national and continental borders, subsequently filled with “apocryphal” didascalies and fake toponyms. We already mentioned that he used the contour of Europe with the note on artistic bravery. He used the same motif in the painted easel board (its three feet standing on the, red, sign of the foetus), and in the area that is supposed to represent the east coast of the Adriaticflows an inscription (written in white letters): Dostoyevsky. There is another version of the map of Europe, its surfacepainted white and the sea painted black, across which flows the text written in red letters: “New utopia: to live romantically.”
The popular contour of the United States of America, painted in cherry red, is labelled the Balkans in capital letters across its entire surface, while positions of otherwise famous locations are marked with names of protagonists from the Croatian artistic avant-garde. Namely: Knifer, Martek, Vaništa, Demur, Jerman, Kožarić, Kristl, Mangelos, Srnec. Therefore, by mocking, in his own way, the global superpower, our author –also, not without (self)irony – paid respects to his fellow painters.Martek segmented the universally recognized contour (although casually deformed) of former Yugoslavia into disparate and irregular regions and gave each of them names of famous, epochal and popular musicians. Northwest and southeast regions were called Dylan, Cohen, Brel, Vangelis and Hendrix (in red letters), while central positions were taken by Piaf, Morrison, Lennon, Aznavour, Glass andInno (in black letters).
More complex and multifaceted is the situation in the painting witha black contour of Croatia (which looks as if projected on white canvas). An inscription runs along the bottomsegment of the map’s surface: “Man is Picasso to man,” and on top of it, in larger letters is the text (of a more general and binding character): “My art is a conversation about it!”. This is not everything, because the piece is entitled: the “Show,” and its upper left corner is marked as: “The beginning of the painting” while the bottom right corner has an analogue remark “The end of painting.” It seems that,in this work,an idea on the autonomy of the painted space is taken to the extreme, already self-proclaimedas the “show” and defined with established borders, i.e. the beginning and end of frame. Nevertheless, even more basic is the statement about his own art that would ostensibly be exhausted in conversation and verbal discussionsabout its scope. But this explicit statement already contradicts the multifaceted applied material (verbal and iconic); and conversation about art can only ever continue afresh and be extended by accepting additional ingredients and understanding the implied extraverbal components.
The fact that Vlado Martek started from the pre-poetic position and an intellectual, conceptual context, is brought to fruition in the context of the 1970s artistic practice that engaged in different forms of action, often on the other side of the classical medium of painting and can thus be called post-painterly (as in the development of the tendency of “post-painterly abstraction”). From the visual and concrete poetry, writing ideas and interventions in the real ambient, our author gradually introduced letters and words into the frame, and then augmented them with characters and symbols, i.e. a kind of topoi. Among them is the privileged figure of thelittle man, a type of repository or a mannequin who seems to be wearing dominant maxims. For example, the recumbent black version of the little man wears a text “All is nothing but the truth” (2003), while the little man’s dark red version, as if paraphrasing Leonardo’s typical man in a circle and square, stands with his feet far apart above a black bird bearing an inscription “Small truth” (2004) while on its head float authoritative terms like State, Church, School and Family.Martek used the figure of the red little man, doubled in the mirror projection, in order to confront his two favourite authors. In the painting “Malevich – Duchamp” (1955) we have a blasphemous dedication to ideal role-models because the depicted figures urinate letters that, strung together, spell their illustrious names. Naturally, this in no way detracts from their importance, on the contrary it represents respect without pathetic reverence.
“Trouble with content” is another one of Martek’s themes, i.e. in his work he does not accept an unambiguous message or a defined motif, both in the visual and verbal sense. Already in the earlieststage, in pre-poetic incubation, on an empty, while sheet of paper, with an obligatory pencil glued on, there was an inscription written in tiny script: “The soul has no content” (1987), i.e. it cannot be reduced to anything but itself. Two years later, in an inverse variation, on black cloth, in capital letters it said: “I can no longer feel the content” (1980). Almost three decades later, he created a painting with an inscription in capital letters: “And do not expect content” (2015). It really is a painting, with characteristic polarization of red and black, with the contour of America in black occupying the central position, and red all around it. Since we already have at our disposal the familiar contour of United States of America, we should add that at the location of the Gulf of Mexico there is an inscription: “Beware the content,” and next to positions of Lakes Michigan and Huron it is written: “Beware the form.”
Going back once more to the “blind map” of Europe, i.e. the work that also uses an approximate contour of our continent – this time in black, surrounded by the sea in red – we are going to encounter a statement, motto, slogan: “I am ashamed to be living off of the avant-garde” (2017). Of course, this was not exactly a confrontation with the concept of the avant-garde nor was it a complete renunciation of its values, but only a mild case of relativizing the established relationship, an indication that any dependence on the general and the cumulative lessens the individual contribution and purity of the personal approach. A step in that direction was taken in 2008 in his work “Calm down, soul, avant-garde is no miracle.” Naturally, a certain de-mythologization of the phenomenon of the avant-garde is also conditioned by the awareness of its ideologized century-old duration and exhaustion, and the demystification stems from the term having a militant, military character that is not utterly conduciveto an autonomous individual relationship. Martek’s constellation justifiably abhors any determinism and shies away from the rigid and hard alignment.
A neutral black board with two white rectangles, the larger of which is located along the bottom right corner and the smaller is positioned centrally near the left edge, has no other sign or letter on it, and is entitled “Art – hard times” (2014). Its shape inevitably reminds us of Knifer’s meander, of the absolutism of form and an almost provocative emptiness, devoid of social and every other non-immanent context. As a result of “hard times” and in accordance with the maximalist requestfor personal references, he will create a painting with a large black figure that is protectively drawing close a small yellow (ochre) figure, underneath the brown tree branch, along which flows an inscription: “Stop being an artist before death” (2017). It is as if the categorical imperative of creating art is the understanding of its inadequacy and elusiveness, awareness of its essentially narrow reach, especially in conditions of hyperproduction, inflation and all manner of contamination.
In the course of writing these lines that brought me here, I noticed that I devoted more attention to Martek’s quotes and my comments thereof than the more thorough description of his works and their authoritative analysis. I, therefore, took the path of least resistance, attracted and challenged by the efficacy of the formulations, their intentional contradictions and inevitable aporia, cleaning of one’s own doorstep. By giving his exhibition the title “At the end of Mannerism,” the author chose to introduce us to the problematics of longevity and gradual depletion of the restorative potential, the topic of spinning in circles, an Ouroboros, if not a cul-de-sac. Neo-mannerism of the decrepit postmodernism or the post-ism of the avant-garde with its long beard, inevitably lead to the crucial point, only (self)critically signalized by Vlado Martekwho creatively surpassed and sublimated it with his intense motivation. It is impossible to remain indifferent before many of his works,conditions and situations suggested and concretized therein, because he found a way to inspire and disturb us with ingenuity and sensitivity, to provide us with coordinates of intellectual and spiritual adventure, and a compass for nomadic travelwithin the world of words and forms.

Tonko Maroević


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